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Going forward together

Wimborne has suffered some misfortunes in recent years, but a new spirit of co-operation is giving real hope for the future. John Newth reports.

One of Wimborne’s many assets is its range of attractions for visitors; this is the Model Town

Wimborne enjoys many advantages: it is physically attractive, it is close to a major centre of population in the Poole/Bournemouth conurbation, it has half a dozen genuine tourist attractions, is serves a large and prosperous rural hinterland, and its town centre comprises a number of small and distinct areas rather than one main street, giving it a unique character. Towns of a similar size in Dorset, like Bridport or Shaftesbury or Wareham, must look enviously at such a combination of plusses as they face the challenges presented by the supermarkets and internet shopping.

Yet in recent years it has been as though the gods were out to punish Wimborne for its favoured status. In June 2008, Canford Bridge closed completely for four months for strengthening and the addition of a pedestrian bridge, and was open for only one-way traffic for two months at each end of that period. The bridge is one of two ways into the town from the south and it became a major inconvenience for residents not only of Poole and Bournemouth but of settlements closer in, like Merley and Broadstone, to reach the town centre. Some shops reported a drop in business of forty per cent during this period, not all of which has been recovered, but what caused the most intense anger was the lack of communication; no-one in Wimborne appeared to know anything about the work until six weeks before it started, and some traders first heard about it from the Echo.

Then in early July last year came the fire that severely damaged a run of buildings around the Albion pub on the east side of the High Street. It took out not just the pub and three shops but a car park and several on-street parking places. Its worst consequence was that one of the shops was Martins, which included the town’s post office. It was seventeen weeks before the Post Office stirred its stumps to provide the town with a temporary facility. During that time, anyone whose shopping list included a visit to the post office naturally took their custom elsewhere.

An aerial photograph taken soon after last July’s fire

To these misfortunes must be added factors like the closure of the long-established butcher and delicatessen, Something Different, in 2007; Scrivens, which now occupies the premises, may be an excellent opticians, but it does not bring people into the town in quite the same way, especially at Christmas. And the whole story was playing out against a background of the worst national recession for a generation.

The bridge episode in particular showed the need for better communication and joined-up thinking, and such was the strength of feeling in the town that a steering group came together comprising the Chamber of Trade, the Town Council, East Dorset DC, Dorset CC and the East Dorset Community Partnership, under the chairmanship of Simon Tong, formerly head of QE School and now a district councillor and East Dorset DC’s lead member for the Environment. These partners pooled their resources to commission a report from the consultancy firm, Halcrow, on how to move Wimborne forward by maximising its assets and addressing its weaknesses.

The Halcrow team spent several weeks last summer talking to individuals and organisations in the town, not least its young people. They have produced a detailed report which identifies 22 areas for action, from traders’ issues, through community issues, to tourism and events. Some of the report’s conclusions are obvious, but others are the products of Halcrow’s objective expertise; the over-riding consideration is that by being written down and brought together in one place, the report’s conclusions represent shared information and knowledge and they make every participating organisation aware of the other’s concerns.

The work to repair the fire damage has had a major effect on the appearance of the town centre

So how will the Wimborne Minster Town Centre Action Plan, to give the report its full title, be carried forward? The present intention is that each of the 22 action areas will have a group formed of interested individuals who will push forward the detailed action identified for that area in the Halcrow report. Each group will report back regularly so that progress can be continually assessed. The partners in the project are realistic and acknowledge that some action points will be easier to bring to fruition than others, but one thing on which they are determined is that none of the groups should become just a talking shop. Above all, they want to build on the fact that the town, district and county councils and the Chamber of Trade are now communicating with each other and working together in a formal structure for the first time.

Both Dorset CC and East Dorset DC see their roles as facilitators rather than leaders: ‘We are here to support Wimborne, not to run the project,’ says Simon Tong. In fact, East Dorset DC itself qualifies as a Wimborne trader, since it owns most of the town’s car parks. Dorset CC’s interest is not just the support of a new local initiative; an understood condition of its financial involvement is that Wimborne shares its experience with other market towns in the county.

As it happens, the town is already providing an example of constructive co-operation between agencies in the form of the new Leigh Park children’s centre and community centre. The Residents Association of Leigh Park and Wimborne Children’s Centre have combined successfully with the town, district and county councils to provide the new £600,000 facility, which should be finished in the autumn. As well as a Sure Start centre, the combined community building will house a crèche, a hall, juice bar, kitchen and meeting rooms for the Residents Association.

Waitrose’s new store rises where once cricketers frolicked on the green

The elephant in the corner of the room during any current discussion about Wimborne is the arrival of Waitrose. Are the people of the town in favour? Will it increase footfall in the town centre? Would the site, right in the middle of the town, have been turned into flats if a supermarket had not been built on it? The answer to any of these questions depends on who is being asked it, but the opponents of the scheme are fighting on, despite the building being well advanced and due to open in midsummer. Their present attempt to have the former cricket ground declared a town green could in theory (not many people expect it to happen in practice) lead to Waitrose having to take their building down, restore the site and go away.

An intriguing feature of the Waitrose saga is the bridge over the River Allen which is planned to link the supermarket site with the town centre via Crown Mead. It is such an obvious adjunct to the scheme, but the owners of Crown Mead, Myan Investments, don’t seem to see it that way and at the moment are refusing to have any part of the bridge built on their land. Our calls to establish the reason for their intransigence were not returned.

Associated with the Town Centre Action Plan, but not actually part of it, is the possibility of Wimborne becoming a Business Improvement District, or BID. It would be the second town in Dorset to achieve this status after Dorchester, where it is generally reckoned a great success. A few individuals have started the ball rolling in Wimborne, and by the time this article appears, a steering group of perhaps a dozen people, fully representative of the business in the town, should have been set up. This group will put together a business plan – more cynically, a shopping list of what the town’s traders tell them they want. This will then be costed and a democratic decision taken by all businesses within the chosen area, currently expected to be the parish of Wimborne Minster, on whether to proceed.

Simon Tong addresses the meeting at which the Wimborne Minster Town Centre Action Plan was launched

The democratic aspect is important because once it is set up, there is a legal obligation on all businesses within the BID to support it financially, no matter how opposed they were to its establishment. This is done by a levy on the rateable value of each business (typically, one per cent), collected by the district council and passed on to the directors of the BID. Again, they must proceed in accordance with the democratic wishes of businesses within the BID and this, say its supporters, is the great strength of the scheme: unlike business rates, the money raised is spent directly and demonstrably for the communal benefit of those who have provided it.

Neither the BID nor the Town Centre Action Plan is a magic wand that with one wave will turn Wimborne into a sort of Utopia for traders, residents and visitors alike. The town suffers as much as any from ‘greedy landlord syndrome’, and its traders are currently staggering under some swingeing increases in business rates. But it is giving itself the best possible chance by working as a community and making the best use of its resources, both financial and other. Other towns in Dorset will be watching with interest.

Credits
2 Kitchenham Ltd
3 Peter Booton
4 Peter Booton

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